X Close

Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Archive for the 'Misha Ewen' Category

Women and Beads: Ancient Egypt to the Jamestown Colony

By ucramew, on 15 March 2016

Misha Ewen

By Misha Ewen

The ‘bead net dress’ is one of the Petrie Museum’s Top 10 objects and one that visitors are always excited to see. It struck me when I started working in the Petrie as a Research Engager just how many beads there are in the collection. There are numerous bead necklaces on display around the museum walls, as well as more beads in the display cases. It made me think of my own research, which touches on the history of the English colony in Jamestown, North America, and how beads had an important function in colonist-Amerindian relations.

Beads at Jamestown

English colonists, who were backed by the Virginia Company, landed at Jamestown in 1607. There they encountered the Algonquian-speaking Amerindian Powhatans who they hoped to trade. They also wanted to learn from them the location of gold mines. There was no gold, but they did trade with them for corn. In these exchanges beads were fundamental. Hundreds of beads have been excavated from the Jamestown fort including those manufactured in Venice and brought to Virginia by English colonists. Many of the beads are blue in colour, ‘a desirable trade item to the Virginia Indians who, according to reports, highly valued beads that were the color of the sky’ [1].

Beads continue to inform research at the Jamestown fort. Archaeologists have found almost 2,000 mussel shell beads that were crafted from ribbed mussels, or tshecomah, that lived in abundance in the marshes around Jamestown. Amerindian women worked these beads, breaking them into small pieces (called perew) and then into semi-round disks. Then they bore a hole in the middle with a stone drill (a mananst). These beads were crafted until they were a similar size and shape by stringing and abrading (to rub, scrape or wear down) them on rock.

© Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation

© Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation

Archaeologists at Jamestown suspect that these beads, which were symbolic items of exchange in Powhatan marriage ceremonies, might suggest not only that Amerindian women were living in the English settlement, but that these beads may have been prepared to recognise the marriages of English men and Algonquian women (something that written records from the time are largely silent on). Aside from a letter written by the Spanish ambassador in London to his king in 1612, who claimed that 40 or 50 Jamestown settlers had married native women, we know little else (and his report is not completely trustworthy) [2]. Therefore, the beads provide the strongest evidence yet of the place of Amerindian women in the colonial fort.

Transatlantic Bead-Obsession

Between September and December 2015 I spent time as a visiting researcher at Yale University, which allowed me to have the amazing opportunity of visiting the Jamestown site in Virginia. There I was welcomed by staff in archaeology who kindly gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the collections and site. Being there really opened by eyes to how knowledge about life in the colony is constantly being reshaped by archaeological discoveries (mostly by items that were ‘thrown away’ by settlers). In particular, I was fascinated that these new finds will open windows into our understanding of the role of women in the colony — both European and Amerindian.

Jamestown Fort, 2015.

Jamestown Fort, 2015.

On my trip I also had the opportunity to spend time in some amazing museums and galleries: the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Yale University Art Gallery, MOMA (New York) and during a trip to Chicago for a conference in June, the Art Institute of Chicago — all rank as world-class collections. By far my favourite find in these collections was related to beads: an Egyptian bead dress in the Boston Museum.

This dress caught my eye because of its similarity to the much beloved bead net dress in the Petrie collections. On Twitter, my post about these two dresses (the one in the Petrie and the one in Boston) received a lot of love: 21 retweets and 32 ‘loves’. (N.B. the Boston Museum also has another Egyptian bead dress in its collection.)


Tweet @mishaewen

Tweet @mishaewen

Egyptian Bead Dresses

The dress in the Boston Museum was found in the tomb of a woman, excavated in Giza in 1927. Its function as a funerary garment required it to cover only the front of the body. The beads on the dress were originally blue and green, in imitation of lapis lazuli and turquoise — much like the beads found in Jamestown. If similar styles of dress were worn in everyday life they may have been pulled over an under-garment. Indeed, scholars have found representations of bead net dresses in ancient Egyptian reliefs and statues, and there was a famous tale of King Snefru’s oarswomen dressing themselves in netting. Dresses of this type were familiar, and many more women who died during the Old Kingdom probably wore them at burial [3].

© Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The bead net dress in the Petrie Museum was excavated from Qau in 1923-4. At first, those who studied the dress thought that it had probably been worn by a dancer: according to the Petrie’s website, ‘the 127 shells around the fringe are plugged with a small stone so that it would have emitted a rattling sound when the wearer moved’.

© Petrie Museum

When a replica of the dress was made, however, specialist clothing consultants found that the dress was too heavy to be worn on a naked body. This research gives credence to the idea that the dresses were primarily funerary, rather than dance or everyday, wear [4]. Unfortunately, this reading removes some of the more erotic associations that have been afforded the bead net dresses…

When I returned from my trip and visited the Petrie Museum (and the bead net dress), the importance of material culture – particularly for studying the lives of individuals who are largely silent in the historical record – was reinforced. Material culture and archaeology is increasingly integrated by historians in their work, but I would call for even more interdisciplinary – especially when we are trying to understand the lives of individuals who were marginalised in the past and remain so in scholarship.


Thank you to Merry Outlaw, Curator of Collections at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, for giving me a tour of the collections and enlightening me about women and objects in the colonial Jamestown fort.

Further reading:

Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, ‘Selected Artifacts’, http://historicjamestowne.org/collections/selected-artifacts/ [accessed 14/03/2016].

Petrie Museum, ‘Bead Net Dress’, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie/about/collections/objects/bead-net-dress [accessed 14/03/2016].

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, ‘Beadnet dress’, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/beadnet-dress-146531 [accessed 14/03/2016].

Boston Museum of Fine Arts, ‘Beadnet dress’, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/beadnet-dress-315900 [accessed 14/03/2016].

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (New York, 1999), pp. 306-7.

Question of the Week:

Was Using Human Remains for Science Taboo?

By ucramew, on 20 January 2016

Misha Ewen

By Misha Ewen


During a shift in the Grant Museum of Zoology recently, an American high school student asked me about the history of the collection and how it has been (and still is) used to teach students about anatomy. We got on to talking about museum collections that have specimens of human remains, like the Hunterian Museum in London. His next question was, when did we stop feeling that studying human remains through dissection, for the purposes of science, was taboo?

Nowadays, it’s commonplace for students studying anatomy to encounter human remains as part of their university degree, but this wasn’t always the case. In the early nineteenth century, there was a dire shortage in Britain of bodies for the purpose of medical research. For instance, the Edinburgh Medical College received fewer than five cadavers a year [1]. This was because only the remains of executed criminals could legally be used. The limitations put on scientific research because of this policy gave oxygen to the criminal business of ‘body-snatching’. When it began, the ‘snatchers’ invented a method to remove bodies from graves without detection: they used to dig holes, some distance away, and tunnel down into the graves before pulling bodies out by rope or hooks. Those who could afford it soon began to invest in mausoleums, vaults and table tombstones to ensure the safekeeping of their eternal resting places [2].

Medical students? Body-snatchers? Or both?

Medical students? Body-snatchers? Or both?

The business of bodysnatching, that fuelled medical research, soon turned even more sinister… In 1831 three men were arrested in London for the murder of vagrants, individuals whose deaths they thought would go unnoticed. On the day they were arrested, they had tried to sell the body of a fourteen year old boy to the lecturers of King’s College for twelve guineas [3]. There was also the famous case of William Burke and William Hare in Edinburgh, who murdered seventeen victims between 1827 and 1829, before selling the corpses to Dr Robert Knox at the Edinburgh Medical College. Unfortunately, this grisly business was inherently tied up in the advancement of medical knowledge.

The dissection of bodies was problematic, in both religious and moral terms, for contemporaries. In the first instance, many believed that their bodies had to remain intact for the afterlife, and dissection was also widely considered to be a punishment for the worst type of criminal. Take the fate of the Edinburgh bodysnatcher William Burke, for instance: he was executed by hanging in 1829 and his body was then publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College [4]. And yet, in this period, recognition of the need for medical students to learn from human subjects was growing.

Courtesy of the Edinburgh City of Literature

Courtesy of the Edinburgh City of Literature

Public outcry, because of the black-market that had developed around medical research, helped the passing of a new bill: the 1832 Anatomy Act, which recognised that more bodies were needed for research and teaching. University College London’s Jeremy Bentham, who donated his own body to science (his auto-icon remains in the UCL South Cloisters), helped prepare the bill before his death in 1832. The act significantly extended access to cadavers, by allowing anatomists to dissect ‘unclaimed bodies’, individuals who died without anyone coming forward to pay for their burial. This was mostly people who died destitute in hospitals, workhouses and prisons. Dissection was no longer solely associated with individuals who were executed for murder, it was now also associated with the shame of dying in poverty [5].

It was really only in the mid-twentieth century that the donation of bodies to science became commonplace. Yet even now, we often feel squeamish about donating our bodies to science after we die. Attitudes certainly have changed, however, since 1832. From December 2015, individuals living in Wales will now have to opt-out if they don’t want their organs donated when they die, and legislation will certainly change soon in the rest of the United Kingdom.


[1] http://www.edinburgh-history.co.uk/burke-hare.html

[2] http://www.history.co.uk/study-topics/history-of-death/the-rise-of-the-body-snatchers

[3] http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng609.htm

[4] http://www.edinburgh-history.co.uk/burke-hare.html

[5] http://www.kingscollections.org/exhibitions/specialcollections/charles-dickens-2/italian-boy/anatomy-act

Further reading:

Colin Blakemore & Sheila Jennett, ‘body snatchers’, The Oxford Companion to the Body (2001). Encyclopedia.com. <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Animal Healing: From Serpents to Coral

By ucramew, on 27 April 2015

Misha Ewen

A UCL undergraduate student visiting the Grant Museum recently asked me whether I had any insight into how past/present societies have awarded ‘animal objects’ — whether teddy bears that bring comfort to poorly children or exotic specimens used in traditional Chinese medicine — with the power to heal. He was researching this question for a medical humanities course and had come to the Grant to gaze on the hundreds of animal specimens the museum displays and garner some inspiration. It seemed to be such a broad question that at first I couldn’t think of any suggestions; once we talked it over, I realised that there’s a whole host of ways that animals (the dead, inanimate and the living) have been associated with healing.

Animals have been connected to beliefs about medicine and healing since time immemorial. Even our modern iconography, the easily recognisable Rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine, retains this connection.


Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius is believed to have originated from one of two sources. The earliest Egyptian medical manuscript, the Ebers papyrus (1500 BCE), described a technique (still in use today) for the treatment of worms by wrapping emerging worms around the end of a staff. In Old Testament lore (possibly 1800 – 1200 BCE), Moses is also connected with a similar image: his bronze staff was coiled with a serpent, which had power to heal anyone who had been poisoned by snake venom.

From either or both of these sources, the Rod of Asclepius may have emerged. Asclepius was revered in The Iliad (circa 750 – 650 BCE) as a great healer, but very much mortal. However, he was later worshipped as the son of Apollo and the patron of physicians, particularly of those who healed the vulnerable and the poor. According to Greco-Roman mythology, Asclepius killed a snake with his staff whilst he was examining a man who had been struck by one of Zeus’s lightning bolts. Miraculously, another snake appeared on the scene, healing the dead snake with herbs and restoring it to life. Inspired by the snake, Asclepius was also able to heal the man struck by lightning. Therefore, in honour of the snake Asclepius adopted the snake coiled on a staff as his own emblem.

In the Petrie Museum’s collections there are further suggestions of the association that societies have made between the serpent and medical belief. One object is the Silver Uraeus ‘serpent amulet’ (UC38689) which appears to be a coiled snake twisted around a red coral twig. Amulets were considered to be protective objects by ancient Egyptians as well as serving an aesthetic function, by communicating the economic and social status of an individual. A similar specimen of coral, which are made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps, can be found in the Grant Museum (C274).

Coral amulet, Petrie Museum.

UC38689, Petrie Museum.

red coral

C274, Grant Museum

Another amulet (UC2341) in the Petrie collection depicts Horus, the god of kingship and celestial power, standing on two crocodiles with an oryx (antelope) and serpents in each hand. According to the catalogue, the hieroglyphs on the back and sides of the amulet are words to be spoken in defence of health, but mainly against snake and scorpion bites. In this example, it seems that the icon of the serpent is invoked to represent a specific type of protection against, and healing for, snake venom.

UC2341, Petrie Museum.

The association between the serpent and medicine survived for thousands of years, but so did the use of coral in protective amulets. In the Victoria and Albert Museum several examples of coral amulets survive in their collection. Their curators believe that stones with distinctive colours and patterns have been used as protective amulets ‘since the dawn of time’. Specimens of green or red coral or malachite were particularly associated with health and healing. In the early modern world (circa 1500 – 1800 CE) coral was also used to create amulets to protect against the ‘evil eye’ and witches who were believed to wield power to curse their victims with sickness and even death. In the early modern world, witchcraft presented a serious and very real threat, creating circumstances where actual illness became entangled with superstitious belief.

Coral amulet, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum (910:1 to 4-1872).

Coral amulet (1700-1800) © Victoria and Albert Museum

Infants and pregnant women were believed to be particularly vulnerable to witchcraft. This stemmed, Lyndal Roper suggests, from contemporary belief about the nature of witches: ’Witches were stereotypically old women, unable to have children any longer, and it was their infertile, hag-like bodies that impelled them enviously to attack the fertility of others. They would creep into the marital bedchamber at night, to press down on pregnant women, leaving them feeling oppressed, or ‘hag-ridden’, as we might say.’ For this reason, it became widespread across Europe to create coral apotropaic items, such as rattles and teething rings for small children. Coral was also sometimes hung around their necks for protection. As Roper has put it, ‘the imaginative connection between witches, birth, and envy lies close to the surface of many witch trials’.

When studying this part of history, I was always fascinated by the idea that people really did make themselves ill and presented real symptoms as a result of fear about witchcraft — they were completely convinced that a curse was upon them. But if they could make themselves sick, they could also make themselves better by firm belief in the protective value of coral.

Coral rattle (1750), courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum (M.18-1996).

Coral rattle (1750) © Victoria and Albert Museum

In both the Petrie and Grant collections there are representations of human belief in the power of the natural world to protect and heal. My own interest drew me to amulets and coral: there are intriguing similarities in the amulets from ancient Egypt to early modern Europe, and I find it fascinating to think about the emotional life of such objects — how they made their wearers feel, the ideas and beliefs they communicated to others. However, there are many more ways that visitors could reimagine this topic and I would urge you to do so.


Katrin MacPhee, ‘Snakes, Mistakes, and Mythology! The Use of the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus in Modern Medicine’


Kristen Elise, ‘What a Difference a Snake Makes: The Caduceus Versus the Rod of Asclepius’


Lyndal Roper, The Witch in the Western Imagination, (University of Virginia Press: London, 2012).

Question of the Week:

How tall were ancient Egyptians?

By ucramew, on 21 January 2015

Misha Ewen

This was the first question I was asked on the first day in my new role as a Student Engager in the Petrie Museum. The visitor in the Petrie came up with this when he was looking at some of the sandals – of different sizes – which have survived and are displayed in the museum’s collection. One sandal appeared to me to be around a modern-day size 9 or 10, so I guessed that those living in ancient Egypt ranged in similar stature to ourselves. I then directed the visitor towards some of the head rests in the collection, which, in what might be deemed a very ‘unscientific’ way, we also made some guesses about the size of ancient Egyptians, although we wondered whether we were looking at objects made for adults or children.

© Petrie Museum, UCL.

© Petrie Museum.


It seems that our guesses were not too far from some archaeological findings. In doing some research I learned that in under 2000 years the Egyptian population changed from being ‘an egalitarian hunter-gatherer/pastoral population to a highly ranked agricultural hierarchy with the pharaoh as the divine ruler’. One study suggested that from the Predynastic period (5000 BCE) until the start of the Dynastic period (3100 BCE) the stature of Egyptians increased, which was followed later by a decline (up to 1800 BCE). They put this down to an intensification in agricultural production which meant that access to food was more reliable, but they also suggested that it reflected the beginnings of social ranking. The decline in stature in the Dynastic period was the result of even greater ‘social complexity’, when there was greater difference in access to food and healthcare: essentially, the gap between the rich and the poor had widened.

Head rest with hieroglyphics. © Petrie Museum.

Nevertheless, over this whole period they found that the mean height (of their sample of 150 skeletons) was 157.5cm (or 5ft 2in) for women and 167.9cm (or 5ft 6in) for men, quite like today. What is quite different is that compared with the average difference of 12-13cm between men and women found in modern populations, in ancient Egypt it was only 10.4cm. This came as a surprise to the researchers, as men in ancient Egypt were thought to have benefitted more (than would be so today) from preferential access to food and healthcare. But their findings probably reflect the fact that the status of women in ancient Egypt was relatively high compared to other ancient societies.

Like today, there are many variables which would have determined the height of an ancient Egyptian. First off, like modern-day England, Egypt was an ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan society where body shapes and sizes of all kinds would have been found: there was no single build, nor hair or skin colour. And also quite like today, the wealth and social status of an individual played a part in determining their physique (although in twenty-first century England being overweight is more often linked to deprivation rather than wealth). All through human history we can see multiple factors – from disease, social status, access to food and cultural aesthetics (to name a few) – determining our physique. As we continue to ponder the ideal, healthy body-type in our own society, I’m sure we’ll continue to look back and ask questions about our predecessors.

For the cited archaeological study, click here.